Our memories are tricky. Whether we inflate experiences in recollection or allow their wonder to slip back among the ordinary depends on our perspectives at the time between present and past. The trouble is that we are no good at knowing in which direction we’ve erred.
We counteract this flaw with record-keeping, and these words are an entry into our shared ledger. They are attestations of what is owed to the people described.
I write them for the reader – you must know how fortunate you are that this group is ready for your moment of greatest need. I write them for our community, in which we possess only a vague and incomplete sense of the gratitude owed to these heroes. And I write them for my own memory, because the demands of present circumstances are surpassed only by these incredible peoples’ responses to them. Their courage and selflessness are so far beyond compare that I can see how one might look back and wonder whether anyone truly could have been so strong as they surely are, or how there was possibly anything left of mind or soul or body of these incomparable bedside nurses who gave, day after day after day, everything there was of themselves to their patients.
I’m not a nurse, just a close enough observer to see that they are the best of us. There is no overstatement in stories told: Today, bedside nurses work beyond the limits of ordinary people to take care of sicker patients than you could imagine, and more of them at once than ever before. They comfort the frightened so tenderly, no matter how many experiences have shown the way that odds weigh against success. They coordinate video calls between families and their isolated loved ones who cannot be saved, all while suppressing the anguish of bearing witness to such tragedy not once, but routinely. They provide the longed-for solace that mothers and fathers had been comfortable at their last moments, and they alone make that true. They do this without reprieve, aware that where one case ends, another will soon begin, and that this cycle is all too likely to repeat.
By comparison, the rest of us do not know fatigue. To be physically and intellectually and emotionally consumed, for such a state to be drawn out over so long an interval – even wartime deployments do not stretch beyond the calendar year. Their exhaustion is not one which can be balanced by turning inward; it is the spiritual depletion of bearing alone a burden which should be distributed among many.
Nobody could endure these conditions, but they have. No one could press on with such relentless commitment, but they do. The dedication of these individuals long exceeds what the world has any right to ask.
But, even told, these words do not begin to describe nurses’ importance. Beyond their personal sacrifices is the burden which nurses have shouldered for our community: while the rest of us waited, or complained, or created risk through selfish judgment, nurses alone have carried forth the idea that we are still together a people that can do the hard work for the right reasons.
We may at some time wonder why, if memory is clear – if such a group were so incredibly heroic as they are – we did not take more action to recognize them.
This would be a good question, and one which we should obviate the need to ask.
It is not possible to reward these people adequately for their courage, but we can offer acknowledgment of their sacrifices. For war heroes, we erect monuments to declare shared understanding of their actions, to recognize the debts we can never repay, and to capture for future generations the achievements of a group who answered a call the rest could not. As nurses deserve acknowledgment, don’t future generations deserve such a strong example? Why not a monument – a nurse holding the hand of a patient, with each of our hospital nurses’ names etched onto it?
There is no way around the truth that they are doing harder work than many of us will see in our lives. We can’t take that away completely, but we can show that we understand. The torch which illuminates our community’s ideas of courage and duty shines brightly in their hands, and its light is theirs alone. While we cannot repay them, if we honor their purpose and selflessness, we must take community action to declare our understanding. And we can’t rely on our memories – their greatness is too far past what we are ready to comprehend.
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